Sheep farming in Nigeria is still largely practised at the subsistence level, with animals raised mainly for home consumption and sale during festive periods. However, rising demand for lamb and mutton, driven by population growth, urbanisation, and changing consumer preferences, is now opening up opportunities for more commercially oriented sheep farming enterprises. This article examines the current status of sheep production in Nigeria, key challenges limiting the growth of commercial sheep farming, and the future prospects for transforming the sector into a vibrant livestock subsector.
Overview of Sheep Farming in Nigeria
The sheep population in Nigeria is estimated at 66.8 million, representing about 15% of the total livestock herd, according to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization. Three indigenous breeds, namely the West African Dwarf Sheep (WAD), Yankasa, and Balami, are predominantly reared across the country’s varied agro-ecological zones.
Sheep are raised mainly under extensive systems by pastoralists, agro-pastoralists, and smallholder crop-livestock farmers. The arid and semi-arid northern regions with lower human population density are better suited for pastoral sheep production. The sub-humid southern parts support more sedentary small-scale sheep keeping alongside cropping activities. According to data from a 2006 livestock survey, about 98% of sheep in Nigeria are owned by smallholders, with average flock sizes of 16 animals.
Nigeria’s annual sheep output is estimated at 262,000 tonnes. However, this accounts for just about 40% of the over 700,000 tonnes of mutton and lamb consumed annually, indicating a huge supply-demand gap. This situation creates opportunities for commercially oriented sheep farmers who can take advantage of the unmet demand and changing food preferences.
Challenges Facing Commercial Sheep Farming in Nigeria
Despite the huge potential, the emergence of vibrant commercial sheep enterprises in Nigeria faces several limitations that need to be addressed. The key challenges constraining profitable large-scale sheep production include:
Low Productivity of Indigenous Breeds
The indigenous WAD, Yankasa, and Balami sheep breeds that dominate flocks have low growth rates and prolificacy. Adult ewes have average litter sizes of 1–1.5 lambs, according to research by Adu and Ngere. The lambs also exhibit slow growth, with mature live weights of just 20–25 kg achieved at over 12 months. This low productivity limits flock sizes and profitability.
High mortality rates
Sheep production in Nigeria is plagued by high mortality, averaging 16–20% annually across flocks, with even higher rates among young lambs. Mortalities are caused by endemic diseases like peste des petits ruminants (PPR), parasites, starvation during long treks, and poor management. High mortality rates hinder the expansion of flocks and profit margins.
The predominant extensive production system relies on natural pastures, which are often of poor nutritional quality, especially during the dry season. Supplementation with grain legume crop residues and agro-industrial by-products is limited. This results in inadequate feed intake, low growth rates, and low milk output in dams. Poor nutrition also worsens the effects of diseases and parasites.
Limited Use of Improved Breeds
Few sheep farmers in Nigeria have adopted scientifically bred improved breeds like the Yankasa-Uda crossbred, which combines the adaptability of local sheep with the higher productivity of exotic sheep. Most farmers are still rearing the unimproved indigenous breeds. This limits the productivity and commercial scope of sheep farming.
Inadequate disease control
Diseases like PPR and helminths, as well as ectoparasites like mites, cause huge economic losses, but their control is hindered by high costs and the unavailability of vaccines and veterinary services for most smallholder farmers. Endemic diseases lower productivity and flock sizes, discouraging commercial investments.
Most sheep farmers do not keep proper records on inventory, breed types, fertility, lambing percentages, vaccination, treatments, mortalities, feed intake, and productivity. This makes it difficult to monitor flock performance and identify problems for quick remedial action, undermining productivity.
Limited processing and value addition
Nigeria lacks a strong sheep value chain beyond breeding and fattening. Activities like slaughtering, deboning, packaging, cold chain infrastructure, and quality assurance systems are poorly developed. This hampers the supply of premium value-added lamb, mutton, and processed products demanded by high-end consumers.
Prospects for Commercial Sheep Farming in Nigeria
Despite the numerous challenges, Nigeria offers bright prospects for commercially-oriented sheep farmers who can exploit the huge demand-supply gap for sheep products. Some positive trends and opportunities include:
Favourable Government Policy and Funding
The Nigerian government recognises livestock as a key growth sector under the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP). Improved budgetary allocation, loan schemes like the Commercial Agriculture Credit Scheme (CACS), and subsidised services are boosting commercial sheep farming.
Rising Demand for Sheep Products
Demand for delicacies like suya and kilishi made from lamb and mutton is rising among Nigeria’s growing middle-class and elite consumers. Annual mutton imports also indicate huge local demand above 700,000 tonnes, according to USDA estimates. This demand can be met by large-scale commercial sheep farms.
Emerging Breeding Ranches and Nucleus Farms
Government and private sector initiatives are leading to the establishment of breeding ranches and nucleus farms for improved breeds like Balami x Yankasa, which offer better productivity. These provide quality breeding stock to expand commercial flocks.
Growing Urban and Peri-Urban Sheep Farming
The growth of major cities like Lagos, Abuja, Kano, and Port Harcourt has led to the emergence of commercial sheep farms on the urban fringes to supply lamb and mutton. These can adopt technologies like zero-grazing units.
Export Market Prospects
Increased sheep productivity can enable Nigeria to tap into the huge Middle East, North Africa, and European markets hungry for lamb and mutton. Nigeria produced only 3,325 tonnes of exported sheep meat in 2020, according to data from the World Integrated Trade Solution. Export earnings potential can drive investments into commercial production.
Nigeria has extensive natural pasturelands in sub-humid and northern Guinea Savanna, which support cost-efficient sheep production with a lower need for expensive feeds. The cool Jos Plateau also offers an ideal sheep-rearing climate.
The Emergence of Integrated Sheep Value Chains
The growing integration of the sheep value chain from input supply, breeding, fattening, slaughtering, processing, and marketing under entities like the Nigerian Sheep and Goat Value Chain Initiative is ensuring higher returns for commercial farmers.
Key Upgrading Strategies for Emerging Commercial Sheep Farmers
To fully tap into the opportunities, Nigeria’s emerging commercial sheep farmers need to employ the following key strategies:
Use of Improved Breeds
Upgrading local flocks through crossbreeding with prolific breeds like Dorper can significantly raise litter sizes, growth rates, milk yield, and carcass quality to boost incomes. Ranch multiplier flocks will provide the crossbred breeding stock.
Investment in Improved Nutrition
Feeding regimes need to incorporate more protein- and energy-rich feed resources like legume hay, brewers’ grains, and oilseed cakes to address deficiencies in the dry seasons. This enables faster growth and higher lambing rates.
Enhanced animal health management
Strict vaccination routines against PPR, regular deworming, and ectoparasite control using proven veterinary products are essential to minimising sheep mortalities and morbidities. Engaging professional veterinary services will be key.
Adoption of Intensive Production Systems
Commercial sheep farming will require more intensive systems like semi-intensive pasturing with rotational grazing and shed-based zero-grazing units for closer monitoring. This allows for higher stocking rates and productivity per acre.
Investment in Infrastructure and Equipment
Improved housing, watering, handling facilities, shearing machines, weighing scales, tagging, milk parlours, and other farm infrastructure are necessary to achieve efficient large-scale sheep production.
Embracing record-keeping and performance monitoring
Proper records on flock inventory, lambing data, health, mortalities, feeds, purchases, sales, etc. will enable monitoring of flock performance to make timely management decisions. Digital tools can be used.
Focus on niche lamb and mutton markets
Targeting premium niche markets for fresh certified halal lamb and mutton as well as value-added products like lean minced meat, sausages, and burgers can earn higher returns for commercial farmers.
Formation of Producer Alliances
Farmer alliances will enable the pooling of sheep quantities to attract larger buyers, negotiate better prices, access joint extension services, share breeding stock, and transport to cut transaction costs.
In conclusion, the future prospects for vibrant commercial sheep farming driven by rising demand in Nigeria are bright. However, emerging commercial farmers must employ strategies like the use of superior breeds, improved nutrition, health control, intensive production, and value addition to address the key constraints limiting productivity and profitability. Supportive government policies for large-scale sheep farming, coupled with strong producer organisations, will further enable Nigeria to harness the huge opportunities in the sheep subsector. With appropriate upgrades, sheep farming can transform from a subsistence activity to a commercially viable livestock enterprise earning premium incomes for farmers.